By Michael Marois
The Washington Post
— SACRAMENTO, Calif. — In the 1980s, a joke that ran through California political circles was that more turnover occurred in the Soviet Union's Politburo than in the state's congressional delegation.
The laugh-line still worked well after the Berlin Wall came down in 1989. From 2002 to 2010, the partisan re-election rate for California House seats was 99.6 percent. Only once in 265 House races in general elections during those years did a district's representation flip parties, going from Republican to Democratic.
That stability ended last year after California voters in 2010 gave a citizen's panel the power to redraw the House districts. The impact, combined with a new primary system, was immediate. One out of four of the state's 53 congressional incumbents departed through retirements or defeats in the 2012 primaries and elections.
"You've had voters shoehorned into districts for the sake of maintaining incumbency and we aren't doing that in California anymore," said Kim Alexander, founder and president of California Voter Foundation. "It was a big shakeout. That's probably what would happen everywhere if you had fair redistricting."
California, Arizona, Idaho, and Washington state have all given the authority to draw congressional boundaries to independent commissions, a model that good-government advocates say can blunt incumbent lawmakers from choosing which voters they represent.
Four other states are testing ways to remove partisan politics from redistricting, the once-a-decade process of redrawing congressional and state legislative district lines to reflect demographic changes documented in the census.
Redistricting is intended to ensure House members represent roughly equal size populations. Yet from the first Congress, party leaders began exploiting the map-making exercise by weakening the voting strength of some groups to gain partisan advantage, a practice known as gerrymandering.
Republican state legislatures dominated the process in 2010, and the tension between a White House controlled by one party and a House run by another will be on display during the deficit reduction talks in coming months. President Barack Obama is advocating a combination of spending cuts and new revenues to curb debt. That position was favored by 67 percent of Americans in a CNN/Orc International poll conducted Nov. 16, two weeks after voters re- elected Obama.
Other presidents have faced political predicaments similar to Obama's. Before him, five of the last six elected presidents — Democrats and Republicans — had a House controlled by the opposition party at some point during their tenure. President Jimmy Carter was the one who didn't.
The California experimentation is significant because a change in the map-makers could lead to more competitive congressional districts, which in turn may produce a less polarized House. Representatives whose electorates are disproportionately Republican or Democratic are under less pressure to find middle ground on legislation or reach out to voters who are registered with the other party.
The change California made "should have the effect both on the left and the right of moderating elements of the delegation, whereas in the past they were all in safe seats, so Republicans were free to be pretty conservative and Democrats were free to be pretty liberal and there was never any consequences of that," said Rob Stutzman, a Republican consultant who served as deputy communications director for Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Jocelyn Benson, interim dean of the Wayne State University Law School in Detroit and a Democratic voting rights advocate, agreed. "The only real solution" to decreasing congressional polarization is for states to create "an independent redistricting commission that has the power to not only draw the map but enact it as well," Benson said.
Still, the challenges for advocates of revising the redistricting process are formidable because partisan state legislators are loath to surrender the power. In California, voters passed on six opportunities to approve an initiative to change the process before, on the seventh try, it was approved.
"It's a hard sell. It's one of those arcane issues," said Alexander. "It's one of those issues that only comes around once every 10 years and people can get very worked up about when it's happening and then it's easy to forget about it once it's all over."
The consistent partisan outcome in California House races that lasted for decades wasn't an accident.
In 2001, the state's House delegation — the Democrats and Republicans serving in Congress — brokered an agreement to draw boundaries that would protect their existing partisan split, recalled Tom Davis, a former Virginia representative who led the National Republican Congressional Committee in the 2000 and 2002 elections.
Davis said he "jumped" at the chance to reach such a deal. "Democrats controlled everything" in the state legislature, he said. "And with Democrats drawing the lines, they could have drawn us down to 15 seats pretty quick."
The split of 33 Democrats and 20 Republicans envisioned under the plan played out in the 2002 election and again in the 2004 vote. After Democrats won the one seat from Republicans in 2006 to alter the delegation's makeup to 34-19, that breakdown was replicated in the 2008 and 2010 elections.
In 2008, California voters formed their commission with the backing of Charles Munger Jr. the son of Berkshire Hathaway Inc.'s vice chairman, and Schwarzenegger. Its initial charge was to draw state legislative districts. Voters in 2010 expanded its scope to include congressional districts.
In the 2012 election, the first held based on the commission-drawn map, Democrats won 38 seats while Republicans took 15.
The commission is made up of five Democrats, five Republicans and four independents. The members can't be lawmakers, public officials, legislative aides or lobbyists.
When the commission completed its work, the congressional districts were more manageable in size and shape and emphasized cohesion on some matters, such as bunching urban or rural voters together. The map also created a few competitive seats, although a majority still carried a partisan advantage.
In the 2012 presidential race, Obama or Republican nominee Mitt Romney won by more than 10 percentage points in all but seven of California's redrawn 53 House districts, according to data compiled by Bloomberg News. In three of the districts, a majority of voters supported the presidential candidate from the party opposite to the congressional candidate who won.
"There is no mandate whatsoever, and I think correctly, to draw districts that are politically more competitive and reverse, social-engineer districts to have a 50-50 split," said Justin Levitt, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles.
Still, the commission stands as "the best example against the incumbent protection plan that was in place before and is still in place elsewhere because it's driven by people who aren't incumbents and don't have incentives to pay back into the political system," he said.
The new primary system in California, where the top two vote-getters advance to the general election regardless of party affiliation, resulted in nine of the state's districts having candidates of the same party facing off in November. Seven of those races featured two Democrats.
The effect of the redrawn lines were no more obvious than in the ouster of Democratic Rep. Howard Berman from Congress after 30 years of service. While Berman in 2001 helped draw himself and fellow Democratic Rep. Brad Sherman safe seats in Los Angeles' San Fernando Valley, the citizens' panel carved out a new Latino-dominated district in the area and put both incumbents into a separate one. Sherman, who's served in the House since 1997, defeated Berman in November.
"The most offensive gerrymander of the last decade has been the preservation of white, liberal seats around Los Angeles to the downside of Latino seats," said Stutzman. "And the fact that you had Berman and Sherman drawn together is a great example of what should have been done a decade ago but was protected."
The new seat was won by Rep. Tony Cardenas, a Democrat who is the first Latino to represent the San Fernando Valley in the House.
Four other states — Iowa, Maine, New York, and Rhode Island — have advisory panels that help draw districts that later must be approved by state lawmakers.
Iowa uses an advisory board of state civil servants and a non-partisan commission to draft boundaries. Board members are barred from considering incumbents' home addresses, voter registration data and election results in the map-making. Iowa lawmakers have never rejected the recommendations since the procedure was put in place in 1980.